July 29, 2012

When it comes to birthdays, I opt for chocolate, but Jill loves her vanilla.

She is calm and rational, always able to think a problem through, while I am crazy-emotional, always feeling things.  Her brain is analytical, layer upon layer for digging and cross-referencing, built like a outline, hierarchical, ordered; mine is more like a wild and barely discernable mind-map, colors and doodles and scribbles that somehow make sense.

When she cooks, she dirties the least amount of dishes, keeping her food simple, satisfying, elemental.  When I cook, I amass a giant pile in the kitchen sink, primping and adjusting, always looking for one more taste to add.

She is an impeccable sight-reader; I play only by ear.  She is a code that needs cracking; I am an open book.  She reads politics and philosophy while I love my cookbooks and historical British lit.  She is good at being still and I am good at being busy.  She is a woman of well-chosen words and I am a woman of, well, lots of words.

She is my opposites-attract, the peanut butter to my jelly, the love and now co-parent of my life.  She never ceases to amaze, surprise, and inspire me, like she did recently when publishing her first novel (on the same day we brought Shiv home from the hospital, no less).  I urge you check out the book, Quail Fried Rice, on Amazon, where you can purchase either a paperback or Kindle version…I’m super biased, but I think it’s a very fine piece of writing.

from my hands-down favorite cake book–Sky High: Irresistible Triple-Layer Cakes

Jill’s birthday was this past Wednesday, July 25th, and we celebrated in new-parent style: at home, with a couple of good friends, some champagne, steaks on the grill, a (mostly) sleeping baby, and this cake.


1 ¼ cup plus 1/3 cup buttermilk
5 whole eggs
2 egg yolks (save the whites for the icing!)
2 tsp. vanilla extract
3 ¾ cups cake flour
2 ½ cups white sugar
4 ½ tsp. baking powder
½ tsp. salt
2 ½ sticks (12 oz.) unsalted butter, at room temperature

oven: 325°F
pans: recipe calls for 9-inch, but I used 8-inch & was fine, they were just quite full!

Butter your cake pans, then line each with a round of parchment paper.  (Buying pre-cut rounds may seem extravagant, but I did it, and it’s kind of changed my life.)  Butter the parchment paper & sides of the pan, too.

Combine the dry ingredients (cake flour, sugar, baking powder, & salt) in the bowl of a large mixer; blend briefly.  Add the butter and 1 ¼ cup of the buttermilk, mixing on low speed at first.  Once somewhat combined, raise the speed and beat until the mixture is light and fluffy, about 2 minutes.

In a small bowl or glass measure, mix together the whole eggs, egg yolks, vanilla, and the remaining 1/3 cup buttermilk until well blended.  Remove the bowl from the mixture and add the wet mixture to the mixing bowl in thirds, folding and scraping down well with a spatula between each addition.

Divide the batter evenly between the three pans (approximately three cups of batter per pan; you can also use a kitchen scale to weigh, provided your pans are uniform).  Bake cakes for 25-30 minutes, or until a toothpick comes out clean when inserted into the center.

Turn the layers out onto wire racks, peel off the paper liners and let the cakes cool completely.  Once cool, wrap completely in plastic wrap to keep them from drying out, and refrigerate or freeze.

from Smitten Kitchen

These are the best instructions for a Swiss-style buttercream I’ve come across: uncomplicated, undaunting.  You can totally make this!  And it will taste DELICIOUS.  Believe me—even Jill, who normally scrapes icing off of her cake (like a weirdo, I know), loves this buttercream.

Somehow I wound up with a large stash of egg whites in my freezer, which I thawed for this recipe.  Egg whites in the freezer are brilliant for things like this and meringue cookies and pavlovas.  But say you don’t have any egg whites in your freezer and you have to crack some eggs for this recipe, what should you do with your yolks? Add them to your next batch of scrambled eggs—they’ll be rich and creamy and dee-licious.


1 cup sugar (I like to use vanilla sugar here)
4 egg whites
3 sticks butter, softened
1 tsp. vanilla extract

In the bottom of your metal stand mixer bowl over a pot of simmering water, whisk the egg whites and sugar together.  Whisk occasionally until you can no longer feel grains of sugar when you rub the mixture between your fingers.

Move the bowl to the mixer and whip on medium-high until the mixture turns white and grows a bit in size.  Add the butter a little bit at a time and continue to whip, whip, whip until it becomes buttercream—this can take a while, so don’t panic!  Just keep the faith and eventually it will become incredibly delicious icing.

Remove your cake layers from the freezer or fridge and assemble on a cake stand or plate.  You can put a cardboard cake board underneath, or just use wax paper to protect from falling icing.  Using a serrated knife, “clean up” the cakes so that their tops are level and their sides match.

Now apply the crumb coat: place a generous amount of icing between each layer, using an icing spatula (also called a palette knife) to smooth it down.  When you reach the top layer, use about twice as much icing as you did for the other layers and work it over the top and down the sides of the cake.  Turn the cake stand or plate as you hold your palette knife against the edges, to smooth the icing.  For the crumb coat, you want a thin, even layer—it’s okay if a little cake is showing here or there, you can fix that layer!  Return the entire cake to the fridge to chill.

After about an hour, apply the rest of the frosting to the cake for the finished layer.  You can do all kinds of fancy decorative things, like pipe buttons or ribbons, or use warm water & your palette knife to make swirls along the sides of the cake, or even a clean comb to “stripe” the cake, but personally, I just made the icing as smooth as possible, then decorated the top simply, with some sugar pearls, fresh blackberries, & candles.  Festive but not fussy!



  1. What a gorgeous cake. It would work for a wedding, too. Since my
    grandson and I also have July birthdays, we’ll enjoy this cake vicariously. May you two be your yin and yang forever, with little Shiv
    to keep you well anchored to reality. Happy Birthday, Jill.

    Comment by carolyn truedell — July 29, 2012 @ 2:22 pm

  2. It is a beautiful cake. I can’t believe you did this with baby Shiv at home. Love you all – mama

    Comment by Veena Mehra — July 29, 2012 @ 4:51 pm

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